I looked on helplessly from my usual pub chair for our match last Saturday against Liverpool.
Despite a tactical setup, this game was beginning to unfold like so many over the last few months. Always with my analytical cap on, I reflected on past ideas and reasons for these disjointed performances.
Is it our off the ball shape? Is it because we don’t have a cohesive midfield without Santi?
Are we simply not as talented or well coached as our rivals?
About mid-way through the first half a new hypothesis emerged:
Arsenal lack ball winners
As ball after ball fell in the centre of midfield, I watched helplessly as the likes of Lallana, Can, and even Firmino seized them for Liverpool. These second and third balls were generally 50/50 in nature and they seemed quicker to them. Their proficiency in this area yielded many advantages, the most notable of which were an established platform for their attacking front three and the ability to maintain possession.
Having ball winners meant Liverpool’s front three of Mane, Firmino, and Coutinho could freely run into advanced areas and exploit our defensive shape. Our defence was constantly being ran at and forced backwards while midfielders also had to track late runs.
As the game unfolded, an inherent trust was evident between their trio up top and their midfield counterparts. Liverpool now had the complete freedom to interchange with creative license.
Simply stated, this is the importance of a platform.
Liverpool also maintained possession after winning balls which led to control over the game. One of the most effective ways to ensure success against Arsenal is to make us play off the ball. Great teams are comfortable, organised, and disciplined off the ball and this has not been part of the Arsenal ethos for some time.
Ball winning is most often seen in the form of tackle, interception, and ball recovery statistics. While tackles and interceptions are important, ball recoveries occur in much higher quantities.
The Everton match in mid-December marked the beginning of our struggles this season. It’s when many of the cracks in the Arsenal foundation started to widen. Shortly thereafter, we began constantly losing the midfield battle against the opposition.
I took a look back at some matches over the past few months to see how the ball recovery battle shaped up:
@Everton (12/13): 65 for; 62 against. +3
@Man City (12/18): 33 for; 57 against. -24
@Chelsea (2/4): 58 for; 59 against. -1
@Bayern (Leg 1 – 2/15): 53 for; 67 against. -14
@Liverpool (3/4): 41 for; 57 against. -16
*Stats courtesy FourFourTwo @Stats Zone
The stats tell us that we are often losing this facet of the game leading to increased possessions for the opposition that force us to play the game off the ball.
Given our tendencies to have fullbacks high up the pitch, our struggle to track runners (yes, I’m looking at you, Iwobi), and forcing our centre backs to win 1v1 and 2v2 duels, this has been a recipe for disaster.
Arsenal’s midfield distances are too large and we have team shape both on and off the ball that leaves large distances in midfield.
The deployment of Coquelin and Iwobi provides some explanation. Given his struggles in possessional buildup and his prowess at breaking up play, Coquelin has often been higher up the pitch this season. This leaves one less able-bodied midfielder to win balls. Additionally, Iwobi has featured often this season. His natural inclination is to come inside and find space to collect with the freedom of a number 10. This leads to his general positioning being away from where the midfield battle is taking place and in areas Sanchez and Ozil like to occupy.
Analysis of these two players are only pieces of the overall puzzle. Individual players shouldn’t be blamed, the problem is systemic.
Arsenal lack team speed.
Xhaka, Coquelin, Elneny, Ozil, Ramsey, and Iwobi all play in the centre of the pitch. Xhaka is the only one you could class “slow”, but none of the other options are that quick either. This translates into distances not covered and us getting overrun in the midfield.
The Ox has never been considered as a true “ball winner” in the past but has done an exceptional job lately when deployed, in large part due to his speed.
Arsenal are a team caught in between styles.
We seem confused about what style we want to embody and I feel the Manchester City game was a stylistic turning point for our squad.
Prior to that game, we had been masking many deficiencies with incredibly clinical conversion rates.
Against City, after taking an early lead, we sat off them with a 4-4-1-1 shape defensively and looked to counter attack. I feel Arsene made this decision because he knew our passing game and team shape wasn’t conducive to beating big teams.
We saw a similar shape in the first game against Bayern and we even adopted a 4-5-1 off the ball against Liverpool. Despite added numbers behind the ball, we shipped many goals in these games and lost the ball recovery battle.
Arsenal will continue to lose big games until we can remedy this issue.
It’s too early to look forward to the summer transfer window but I hope a speedy, ball winning central midfielder is a priority.
Additionally vital for Arsenal Football Club is the meaningful drilling of an off-the-ball shape, which will contribute to a more balanced squad.
The 4-3-3 we have seen off and on lately is refreshing. Hopefully it can be a catalyst for future change.
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